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Structuring a meditation session

Structuring a meditation session

Part of a series of short teachings given during the Four Establishments of Mindfulness Winter Retreat in 2013. More extensive teachings on the establishments of mindfulness can be found here.

  • Begin with a few minutes of silent meditation
  • Take refuge and generate bodhicitta
  • Meditate on lamrim topic if you like
  • Do particular practice, e.g. Shakyamuni Buddha practice
  • Purify and create merit by doing the seven-limb prayer, mandala offering and request for inspiration from the Buddhas
  • Meditate on a topic such as the body as a corpse from the “Four Establishments of Mindfulness”
  • Visualize the Buddha absorbs into you and purifies your mind
  • Dedicate the merit

I want to talk about how to structure your meditation sessions. We always start our meditation sessions by taking refuge and generating bodhicitta. When we take refuge, we know who we’re turning to for spiritual guidance and what kind of practice we’re doing. When we generate bodhicitta, we now know why we’re doing that practice. Those two things are very important to have extremely clear in our mind before we start. We always start with refuge and bodhicitta. Then it’s also good to do some practice that involves purification and the creation of merit before we get to the heart of our meditation session. In that context, we’re going to do the practice of Shakyamuni Buddha.

Somebody asked yesterday about doing some lamrim in conjunction with your motivation or with your refuge. Before you start the practice on Shakyamuni Buddha, either before you take refuge and bodhicitta or afterwards, do a little bit of reflection on the lamrim. What I would suggest, especially for this retreat, is to reflect on the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Reflect on the analogy of ourselves as the patient, the Buddha as the doctor, the Dharma as the medicine, the Sangha as the nurses. Do a lot of deep reflection. Along this line, you might also want to do some reading in the refuge section of the lamrim about what are the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha? What are the three jewels

It’s very good to think about what does taking refuge mean, and what does it mean to me? What are the three jewels, and why do we take refuge? I think that doing some meditation on refuge and also doing some meditation on bodhicitta is very helpful. Those two ways of generating bodhicitta that I spoke about yesterday, the seven-point cause and effect instruction and then equalizing, exchanging self and others are very helpful for generating bodhicitta. So, do some meditation on those. Or meditate on the kindness of sentient beings. Whenever you don’t know what to meditate on, meditate on the kindness of sentient beings. You will never go wrong with that, and it’s easy if your mind’s open. 

The reason I’m suggesting those two in particular is not just because we take refuge and generate bodhicitta at the beginning, but because in the four establishments of mindfulness, those practices are very geared to helping us understand the four noble truths. Especially when looking at true dukkha and the true origin of dukkha, the first two noble truths, we’re looking at some pretty greasy, grimy, yucky stuff. We’re looking clearly at, “What is the nature of this body, and why am I so attached to it?” We’re looking at the insides of our bodies and the insides of the bodies of people that you’re attracted to. You’re imagining your body and their body as corpses in various stages of decay. It’s pretty greasy and grimy, isn’t it? This is the nature of our body, so we have to look at it very squarely, and this practice does that.

Similarly, when we’re thinking about the causes of samsara—ignorance, attachment, resentment, laziness, all these kinds of aspects that we don’t like about ourselves very much—we have to own and recognize that they’re there. Because we’re meditating on these things that can make the mind quite sober and bring our energy down, it really stops the mind of daydreaming that wants to go to the beach because all of a sudden, you’re looking at the insides of the boyfriend or girlfriend that you’re lying on the beach with. [laughter] You’re not seeing their skin in their bathing suit anymore; you’re seeing what’s right below the skin. That stops that fantasy really quickly. Those kinds of meditations lower the energy, the excitement, the giddiness, the, “Oh, I’m going to find some happiness in samsara. Where’s my chocolate cake” kind of mind. 

We also need to balance that by thinking of things that uplift our mind. When we think of the qualities of the three jewels, it uplifts our mind. When we think of the kindness of sentient beings and just how incredibly spectacular bodhicitta is, it uplifts our mind. That’s why I’m suggesting those two meditations in particular to do at the beginning of your session because they fit in nicely with the four foundations of mindfulness. They round out your practice.

You would start your practice out with maybe a few minutes of silent breathing meditation, three to five minutes, not so long. Then you can either take refuge first and then do your lamrim or do your lamrim first and then do refuge and bodhicitta. It depends how you want to do it. Do that for 10 to 15 minutes. I’m just giving approximations. Some sessions will be shorter, some sessions will be longer. You can play with these. These are just approximations. After your lamrim meditation, then you do the practice on the Buddha, which is Pearl of Wisdom, Book 1

The long version of the practice starts on page 19. By doing the seven-limb prayer, you are purifying and creating merit. Same with the mandala offering. Then you’re requesting inspiration from the Buddha and the entire lineage down to your present teacher. Then you imagine a replica of your teacher in the aspect of the Buddha coming from in front and sitting on top of your head. The Buddha is now on the top of your head. You say the Buddha’s mantra and you imagine the nectar and light flowing from the Buddha into you, purifying you. Then, here on page 27 where it says meditation on the stages of the path, instead of doing that, that’s where you do your four establishments of mindfulness. You’ve purified, accumulated merit, the Buddha’s on your head, looking over you, inspiring you. Then you’re meditating on whichever of the many meditations in the four establishments of mindfulness. You do that.

While you’re meditating on the four mindfulnesses, you don’t have to keep the visualization of the Buddha there. You just feel like the Buddha’s there supporting you. Don’t get confused, “Oh, I have to visualize this, but I have to visualize a corpse at the same time.” No. The Buddha’s up there, and you’re just aware of the Buddha being there. Then you do your meditation, and then at the end, I recommend the bell ringing—maybe seven to ten minutes before the end of the session instead of just five. At that point in time, in the last ten minutes, then the Buddha absorbs into you. You imagine that your body is completely purified and full of light and clean clear like crystal. Your mind also has the wisdom of the Buddha, particularly in respect to the four establishments of mindfulness. You imagine that you have the Buddha’s realizations of those. You spend some time meditating on that, and then you dedicate the merit.

Now, some of you have highest yoga tantra initiation, and if you want to, you can do one of your six session guru yogas in here in place of the meditation on the Buddha. Everybody will do the meditation on the Buddha because it’s led for the first session. The second, third, fourth and then evening session, those other sessions if you want to, you can do at one of your six sessions, you can do the long one or you might abbreviate it and just do the short one. If you do that, you stop at the point where the guru comes on top of your head before the guru dissolves into you. Similarly, Vajradhara is on top of your head, you do your meditations on the four foundations of mindfulness, you dissolve, self-generate, and then at the end, Vajradhara dissolves, you self-generate, and then you finish the practice with the dedication. It’s fine to do the short six sessions like that.

Then the other sessions, because that’s not adding up to six, then you just do those on your own at some time. People who have other commitments for other meditations, you do those outside of these sessions, and you do the short version. You can do it quickly so that you keep your commitments and yet you also have time to do the meditations on the four establishments.

Is that clear how to structure your session? It’s very helpful, refuge, bodhicitta, four immeasurables, create merit and purify, then make requests to the Buddha. Then the Buddha’s on top of your head, you purify a little bit more. Then you do the meditation. You have a connection with the Buddha, so then you’re going to meditate on one of the Buddha’s teachings, and it’s easier. 

Then at the end, the Buddha dissolves into you, and you meditate that your body becomes just light, which I think is very good because when we’re doing the mindfulness of the body, we’re really looking and imagining the insides of our bodies and paying attention to our body. Sometimes our mind tends to make our body a little bit too concrete, so it’s very helpful if you’re doing the Shakyamuni Buddha practice, that the Buddha dissolves into you and your whole body just dissolves into light. Then you put your mindfulness on that, and that’s a different kind of mindfulness on the body. Your body’s just light. Or if you’re doing the six-session guru yoga, you self-generate as the deity. You place your mindfulness on that. That’s also a mindfulness on the body, except it’s the deity’s body

I think that’s quite good for us. When we’re doing mindfulness on the body, it’s like, “Oh, I’m walking around in this corpse,” because that’s basically what we’re doing. And look at the inside of it and, “Why in the world am I so attached to this thing?” It’s very good because it brings a lot of renunciation. It really makes us want to get out of samsara. But we also don’t want to fall into grasping at true existence at that point. At the end, having our body transform into light stops that grasping at true existence. My body isn’t this concrete bag of filth. It’s now light. In other words, things are not truly existent. You can look at the same thing from different perspectives because it doesn’t have its own inherent essence. I think this is quite skillful in the long term to help us do the mindfulness on the body. Anything about that?

Questions & Answers

Audience: Where can we find some of the meditations on the four establishments of mindfulness?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): They’re on the chapters that you received in your email, and they’re in the book that’s out there, and I gave a whole set of teachings on this also. The videos are going to be played in the library.

Audience: (inaudible)

VTC: The teachings are about an hour for each video. Not too long.

Audience: (inaudible)

VTC: Then later we sent you the chapters from one of the books. We sent you three chapters and asked you to print them out. If you don’t have them, they’re in the library. You can read them in the library. They’re in a binder that’s on that same table, so you can read them there.

Audience: (Inaudible)

VTC: And then the other chapters from this unpublished manuscript, they’re in a binder that’s on that table. We sent all this stuff out to you. There’s also the root text and the commentary by Geshe Sonam Rinchen. That was sent out to you first, and then the three chapters were sent out later.

Audience: (Inaudible)

VTC: If you watch the videos, you’ll get the whole thing. We have audio, too. Why didn’t you show the videos? We have the videos already downloaded on CDs. We don’t need to go on the internet to get the videos. She has all the videos. We videoed all those teachings, and we should have a set in our library. She’ll make them because I think it’s much nicer for people to watch a video. It will take a few days, but as she makes them, she’ll give them to you. You can play the audio until that’s done. I’m sorry, I thought you already knew about the videos in advance. “Don’t assume anything.” [Laughter] I assumed. I was wrong.

Audience: (Inaudible)

VTC: No, visualizing the body is one meditation. I’m saying that when you’re visualizing the body and the grossness of the body, at that point you’re not thinking it’s not inherently existent. At that point, you’re just meditating on the conventional nature of the body. At the end when the Buddha dissolves into you, at that point, you realize your body isn’t inherently existent.

Audience: (inaudible)
VTC: No, inherent existence doesn’t mean no existence. Don’t confuse existence and inherent existence, and don’t confuse the emptiness of inherent existence with total nonexistence. They’re not the same. When we say the body’s empty of inherent existence, it just means that how we’re perceiving the body—as being some concrete, independent thing—that perception of the body is incorrect. It doesn’t exist as it appears to us. It doesn’t mean that the body doesn’t exist. The body’s here, isn’t it?

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.